CD liner notes for Composers/ Voice CV 79, 1998
Louis Andriessen -
Trilogie van de Laatste Dag
'Trilogy of the Last Day'
The phenomenon 'time' is a recurring factor in the extensive and richly-variegated oeuvre that Louis
Andriessen has produced in the past forty-plus years.
This theme is of course most purely embodied in the large-scale work De Tijd (Time, 1981), but titles
such as Contra Tempus (1968) and De Snelheid (Speed, 1983) reveal Andriessen's continued
preoccupation with this topic.
And what is more inevitable than that a composer so engaged with the idea of 'time' eventually arrives at
the point where all time ceases to exist: death? This, indeed, is hardly a new aspect of Andriessen's work
see titles like Mausoleum (1979) or Facing Death (1991). Death also assumed a central
role in the unnamed final movement of the four-part work De Materie (Matter, 1989). In that respect,
the scores that collectively form Trilogie van de Laatste Dag (Trilogy of the Last Day) represent a
logical step in Andriessen's output. But still Andriessen manages once again to test the limits of his
thematic content and his musical idiom, and in doing so to surpass himself.
'Death, what is it?', sings a boys choir at the very end of Trilogie van de Laatste Dag, but it has
a mischievous, rowdy resonance, as though someone has unexpectedly spilled the beans. 'Death is when your
breathing stops, you don't shit, you don't piss anymore, you don't think anymore.' Its disarming
matter-of-factness gives short shrift to the illusion that all those clashing, harrowing or reticent chords
of the preceding hour bespeak a tormented mind. Is music not, after all, simply music? But still. In this
context the ditty sung by those naughty boys takes on a heart-rending aspect whose effect is reminiscent of
Mahler. Not that even one single note of Mahler rears its head in Andriessen's music. This work is haunted
by other composers: Stravinsky, Claude Vivier, Saint-Saëns and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, bien
etonnés de se trouver ensemble.
The first six minutes of Trilogie van de Laatste Dag were written in 1993. Andriessen then set the
work aside to devote himself to the opera Rosa, to a libretto by Peter Greenaway. He resumed work on
the Trilogie in 1995 and completed it in 1997. The overall contours of the piece were established
from the beginning. Like De Materie, it is a large-scale, multi-movement work for a sizeable
instrumental ensemble and singers; likewise, its movements can be performed separately. And also like
De Materie the work has thanks to the combination of musical and textual elements the
character of a cultural-historical essay. While De Materie's central theme was the relationship
between spirit and matter, that of the Trilogie is, as mentioned earlier, death or, to be more
accurate, the way in which various periods and cultures have dealt with death.
It was the poem The Last Supper by the Dutch poet/painter Lucebert (1924-1994) that led Andriessen
to this subject and eventually became the text of the first movement.
Unlike De Materie, which consists of four movements of equal length, the three movements of the
Trilogie are based on a time ratio of 9:6:4. The first movement is sung by four men's voices, the
second by four women's voices and the third by a children's choir. These were the precepts under which
Andriessen set to work in 1993.
The first movement, De Laatste Dag, was originally composed for the Ensemble Parade, the June 1996
Holland Festival event with which the Year of the Ensembles reached its grand climax. It was premiered by an
army of musicians assembled from the ranks of the Asko Ensemble, Nieuw Ensemble, Schoenberg Ensemble and
Netherlands Wind Ensemble. Due to the heavy orchestration as well as with an eye on future
performances Andriessen produced a second, slightly thinned-out version of the piece. The
instrumentation is nevertheless still robust, even more so because the piece is played almost entirely tutti.
This makes the contrast with the score's 'empty' spots, during which a lone boy soprano occasionally appears,
all the more dramatic.
The boy's text, Een juffrouw met haar meid (het ellendig doodshoofd) [A woman and her lass (the
wretched skull)], is a bizarre piece of nineteenth-century folk poetry. It tells the story of a graveyard
search, a talking skull and a dismal vision of life after death. The crudeness of both the language and the
ideas offers a peculiar contrast to the perception of death couched in Lucebert's poem equally sombre,
to be sure, but tinged with sacredness.
The harmony in this movement is based on a series of twenty-two chords that emerged via the manipulation
of the parallel dominant seventh chords Andriessen used as a starting point and which are still clearly
audible in one of the musical layers. These ingredients are subjected to continuous 'development', a concept
that Andriessen borrowed from the formal experiments carried out by composers such as C.P.E. Bach in the
time that the classical sonata form was still evolving.
The freedoms these composers granted themselves in the name of 'development' represent, in Andriessen's
eyes, the springboard for Romanticism, a period from which he has always firmly distanced himself but with
which he now, in this way, gingerly confronts.
This is not to say that De Laatste Dag, whose hammering chords grind over one another in spasmodic
layers, contains anything remotely Romantic. But the music's jagged construction and climactic effects
produce a sort of rapture that at the very least suggests the passion for expression that was brought to a
head in nineteenth-century music.
Despite the fact that the opening movement is so complex and dissonant, it still has a more tonal,
equilibrium-seeking effect than the bare-boned harmonies of the second movement, TAO. The term
'bare-boned' can be taken almost literally, considering that Andriessen has shaved down the 22 four-voice
chords of the first movement to 13 three-voiced chords. The number 13, as it happens, plays a significant
role in the text used in this movement, taken from the Tao Te Ching
by Lao Tse.
TAO is 'Eastern' in the same way that De Laatste Dag is 'Romantic'. The musical substance has
nothing in common with exotic music, but the work's ascetic, contemplative character arouses, to a certain
degree, associations with the Far East. These implications are, of course, encouraged by the text
(in addition to the fragment from the Tao Te Ching, Andriessen uses a text by the Japanese poet
Kotaro Takamura), as well as by the koto played by pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama at the movement's conclusion.
The genesis of TAO was recorded by filmmaker Frank Scheffer in his fascinating documentary The Road.
While the musical direction in the first movement is primarily an upward one, TAO is dominated by
descending lines. The wispy, extremely high notes at the opening of the movement resemble wind chimes, an
effect that is further reinforced by a technique already at home in Andriessen's toolbox: the hoketus,
in which two groups of instruments contribute notes in alternation, so that a single-voice melody emerges
from what is in fact a two-voice texture. In this case the effect is extremely subtle, due to the refined
instrumentation and the unsteady, fickle rhythm.
This long-drawn-out introduction proceeds rather abruptly to an oboe melody whose sound colour is
distorted by piccolo, flute and violin notes in the extreme upper register. Andriessen borrowed this
'overtone' technique from Canadian composer Claude Vivier (1948-1983). Following this interruption the thin,
high tones return, this time in combination with the women's chorus.
With the entrance of the piano, the descending lines accelerate more and more. The oboes make a fleeting
appearance, and finally the ensemble takes over the descending motion of the piano. When the death motive
a descending minor third finally appears, the orchestra falls silent and the soloist begins to
render the text, first reciting and then, tentatively, singing, while accompanying herself on the koto. The
first hesitant notes recall the melody sung by the men's chorus in De Laatste Dag.
In the third movement, Dancing on the bones, Andriessen provokes yet another confrontation with the
nineteenth century, but this time via the back door, the fin de siècle. His 'model' this time
is the virtuoso scherzo à la Stravinsky, Dukas and Saint-Saëns; the latter's Danse macabre
served as the blueprint for this final movement. This programmatic work, a musical depiction of a graveyard,
the dancing skeletons accompanied by Death playing a mistuned violin, is in turn a reference to the 'Dance
of Death' tableaux that have appeared in the visual arts ever since the Middle Ages. It is the sort of double
meaning that Andriessen loves to take advantage of, all the more so because the parallel with the verse from
the first movement is there for the picking.
In order to manipulate his blueprint to the desired duration of twelve minutes, Andriessen multiplied the
number of measures in the Danse macabre by a factor of 1.7. He maintained the fast-time signature, of
course (even though, at times, he intentionally undermines this framework). The composition's outline
corresponds to that of the original, thus there is, as in Saint-Saëns, a slow and a fast theme.
Additionally, Andriessen has applied all sorts of other parallels at will. For instance, the beginning is
identical to that of the Danse macabre, and the ostinato rhythm of the fast theme and the diminished
fifth of the scordatura violin play an important role. The remaining similarities are less readily audible
and actually can only be traced by scouring the scores or recordings of the two works side by
This method of composing results in a piece that is more loose-jointed than we are used to with
Andriessen, all the more so because echoes of previous movements crop up. But as the scherzo element becomes
more prominent, the music assumes an increasingly insistent character, until the tension is finally released
by the boy's choir, which enters at the point where Saint-Saëns combines the two themes. The choir's
melody is derived from the melody sung by the solo boy soprano in De Laatste Dag. The text offers a
clinical definition of the concept of 'death', but clothed in naughty schoolboy language, as the composer
calls it. As the text he was looking for was nowhere to be found, Andriessen was forced to assume the role,
as an exception, of his own librettist.
And so arrives Trilogie van De Laatste Dag, in a oddly uninhibited way, at its conclusion: a
furious, but hardly frivolous, flirt with death. It is rather as though the music, having made a last-minute
lucky escape, pauses to thumb its nose while looking death in the eye.
(translation: Jonathan Reeder)
See also my Louis Andriessen cartoon
© Frits van der Waa 2007